by Maggie Dolan (note from Lowell: I’d be happy to post statements by supporters of Susan Platt or Justin Fairfax here as well; just let me know)
Nationally, 60,000 people died in 2016 of drug overdose. In Virginia in 2016, 1420 drug overdose deaths occured, an increase of 38% over 2015. The Virginia Medical Examiner says that opiate overdose is now the #1 cause of unnatural death in people under 50 in Virginia. Let that sink in. More than cancer or heart disease, even more than the HIV, car crashes or gun violence epidemics during their peak years. And the numbers are still rising. It has officially been declared a public health crisis in Virginia.
In 2010, healthcare prescribers began recognizing the growing opioid epidemic, and began limiting the number of prescriptions given and the number of pills in each prescription. As prescription pain pills became less available and more expensive, addicted individuals turned to heroin which was flooding the country and was more readily available and less expensive. According to the Virginia Medical Examiner, “The total number of fatal fentanyl and/or heroin overdoses have significantly increased since late 2012. It is important to look at these two drugs together because as heroin became more popular in 2010, fentanyl began showing up as an additive. By late 2013 and early 2014, some heroin being sold on the street was actually completely fentanyl, unbeknownst to the user.
Fatal fentanyl and or heroin overdoses increased by 72% in 2016 compared with 2015.
The most deadly of the fentanyl analogues flooding Virginia and being mixed with heroin is carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer 5,000 times stronger than heroin. An amount smaller than a few grains of salt can be a lethal dose.
One candidate for LT. Governor has knowledge and experience in combating the opioid epidemic and has made it a campaign priority. While many elected officials are currently attempting to address this crisis, Gene Rossi said he has been fighting this battle for years.
In 1989, Rossi began his long career with the United States Justice Department. For twelve years, he worked as a Senior Trial Attorney in the Department’s Tax Division, including four years prosecuting organized crime drug enforcement task force (OCDETF) cases in the Alexandria Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia—a premiere office nationally known as “EDVA” and the “Rocket Docket.” From 2001-16, Rossi was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in EDVA’s Alexandria Division. He served as Deputy Chief of the Narcotics Unit. And from 2005-16, he was Chief of the Specials Unit, where he managed an intense courtroom training program for over 400 mostly first-time prosecutors from the Justice Department, other federal agencies, and the Virginia Attorney General’s Office
“In 2002, I was a canary in a coal mine. I was one of the few federal prosecutors to focus on what now is an epidemic because I saw it coming,” Rossi said. “… The epidemic was touching all parts of the state even in 2002. And over the last 15 years I led the largest investigation in U.S. history to address the opioid crisis. It was called Operation Cotton Candy. “I was fighting for those who could not speak for themselves,” he said. “Victims alive and dead. The ignored, the afraid, the forgotten. From 2001-16 as an Assistant United States Attorney in Alexandria, Rossi led Operation Cotton Candy–the largest federal investigation ever to address the opioid epidemic. This Operation helped secure over 200 convictions of unscrupulous pain doctors, pharmacists, health professionals, and drug dealers.”
Rossi knows that we cannot arrest our way out of this epidemic. Addiction is a disease. And mass incarceration is not the cure.
The 2016 “The US Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health report stated, “We need to invest more in expanding the scientific evidence base for prevention, treatment, and recovery. We also need a cultural shift in how we think about addiction.”
“For far too long, too many in our country have viewed addiction as a moral failing. This unfortunate stigma has created an added burden of shame that has made people with substance use disorders less likely to come forward and seek help. It has also made it more challenging to marshal the necessary investments in prevention and treatment.
We must help everyone see that addiction is not a character flaw – it is a chronic illness that we must approach with the same skill and compassion with which we approach heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.”
Rossi believes we must have a balanced three-prong approach to this epidemic that focuses on prevention, enforcement, and most important, recovery.
“Enforcement is for those who truly, truly sell pills for just money and malicious motives, those individuals should pay the price,” Rossi said. “I have no sympathy for them.”
He said he would go after any corporation that promotes and peddles pain pills to get more customers. He described addiction as a disease and said that mass incarceration is not the cure for people struggling with it.
“For those who are caught in that web of addiction, I want to show fairness and compassion and provide them with mental health treatment and addiction counseling to help them get over this disease,” Rossi said.
Opioid overdose has been declared a public health crisis in Virginia because it is the #1 cause of unnatural death in Virginia in 2017. Victims of the opioid epidemic need a voice in Virginia state legislature to speak for them, Virginia Democrats are fortunate this year to have three excellent candidates for Lt. Governor in the June 13 primary. However, one candidate for Lt. Governor is notable among all others for recognizing the true public health epidemic in our state and making it a campaign priority.
As an ER physician, I have seen firsthand the tragic effects of opioid overdose on individuals and their families and I am both delighted and relieved that one candidate for state office has made it his priority this election year. Gene Rossi understands that the causes of this epidemic are multi factorial and will need an approach that is multi-pronged and multidisciplinary to be effective. He has the skills and decades of experience as Assistant US Attorney to address it decisively. He is the voice we need as Lt. Governor to lead this effort.